I was once told by someone close to me that I was “the cold one.” I firmly believe that words exchanged during disputes should not normally be taken to heart, but this was particularly hard not to internalise. It had the potential to hurt anyone on the receiving end, but I couldn’t ignore the way that being perceived as ‘cold’ felt like a vastly more detrimental insult to me, specifically because I’m a woman.
Although I am no fictional character (not yet, at least; it’s on my bucket list), this experience, alongside my many years of studying literature, has made me realise the double standards that exist in the literary world when it comes to the trope of unlikeable main characters and, more importantly, why we need to take a closer look at the problematic structures that villainise the so-called “cold female protagonist.”
The female protagonist has undergone many changes throughout the ongoing developments in feminist literature. However, one thing that has not changed is the constant critical lens they are under. This lens cannot seem to make up its mind about what constitutes the ‘idyllic’ female. Women, especially those in the LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities, have struggled for years to have their stories told and voices heard. Despite the progress made on this front, it’s no surprise that a specific demographic – men – is still trying to dictate how their narratives are presented, and ‘cold’ is certainly not considered an appealing trait according to this agenda.
There has been a recent surge in the trope of the unlikeable female protagonist in contemporary fiction that has received controversial reception. Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends spring to mind. Even though I struggled to relate to the protagonists in these novels, I still felt that their stories were valuable and worth reading. It is also misleading to confuse an unrelatable character with an unlikeable one, as some tend to do. Unlikability makes room for empathy, which ultimately results in some form of human relatability. In my experience, someone who shows no trace of human flaws is much harder to feel connected to.
Fictitious male counterparts unsurprisingly face fewer ramifications for being unlikeable and are often romanticised as morally grey, charmingly apathetic figures for their coldness. For men, coldness is endearing; it’s mysterious; it’s sexy – for women, the trope is much more complicated and conflicting. If they show emotion, they’re weak, but if they don’t, they’re cold. Either way, they come out the other side as fundamentally undesirable by one implicitly gendered expectation or another. This issue in literature is atrociously underreported, and it’s time to break the silence on this oppressive construct.
I view likeability as a mask that plays into the same realm as the social media façade. The same pressures on women to appear flawless on Instagram exist just as prominently in literary conventions. This begs the question: what does the pressure of female likeability achieve in both literature and real life? Besides catering to the male gaze, it depicts an unrealistic and even degrading image of womanhood to the point of diminishing the lived female experience. In the same way that we appreciate an influencer posting a bare-faced selfie, we too can admire a female character who doesn’t make perfectionism seem like an innate and defining female quality —if not relatability, we can at least find solidarity.
There is a resonance to an imperfect fictional woman, one that echoes a breath of humanity and leaves an imprint of authenticity that is lasting and impactful in a beautifully enigmatic way. Anyone can invent a character that conforms to gender norms and stereotypical femme-fatale tropes that may be admired in a passing, surface-level way. But for a character to linger with the reader for reasons beyond the superficial conventions of feminine likability, even if they are only subconsciously grasped, they must be infinitely more profound. That profound character portrayal is a skill I can only dream to possess someday as a writer. Until then, I will embrace my own ‘coldness’ as an excuse to live my life as the main character that every woman deserves to be.
Image Credit: “Sally Rooney … cover by nerosunero” by nerosunero is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.